Hilltribe market a weekly jewel

When these ethnic Chinese come down from their mountaintop villages to set up shop in Chiang Mai city every Friday, they bring with them a range of culinary treats not likely to be found anywhere else in the Kingdom

Anyone who has spent time roaming around Thailand's local markets will agree that they can provide a clear idea of the surrounding area's character. There are many different kinds of markets. Some convene in the morning, others in the evening. Some are convenient for Bangkok residents and others require some travelling to reach.

LUSCIOUS AND LOCAL: Peas boiled in salted water can be eaten plain or stir-fried with pork, left, avocados, priced at 30 baht a kilo, centre, and right, a sweet snack made by mixing fresh corn with beans and sugar, wrapping it in a corn husk and then steaming it.

One market well worth visiting is in Chiang Mai and appears only once a week, on Friday mornings. It caters to a minority community, and there are things for sale there that you might find only rarely at most other regional markets, and probably never in Bangkok. For this reason alone it is a place that visitors to Chiang Mai should not miss.

It is known locally as Talat Chao Khao (Hilltribe Market) and is located midway between Charoen Prathet and Chang Klan roads.

Actually, a better name for it would be Chinese Market, because the vendors there all come from two Chinese communities.

The first of these is high in the mountains stretched around Wiang Haeng and Chai Prakan districts. These people are descendants of the Kuomintang soldiers from Yunnan province in China, who were driven into Thailand by the Chinese Communists to the Roi Takhep border area in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai provinces, where they established numerous mountaintop villages. They are now in their third generation and have Thai citizenship.

They are primarily farmers who grow temperate-region vegetables under the supervision of the Royal Project, supplying them to middlemen who sell them to the public. They also grow vegetables for themselves. These are different from the ones that they raise for sale, and are similar to the vegetables eaten in their ancestral homeland in southern China.

At midnight on Thursdays, the residents come down from their mountaintop villages and bring the vegetables and other food products to the Chinese market by truck. Once there they begin preparing the goods for sale, starting before dawn on Friday and continuing into the afternoon, after which they return home until the next Thursday night. The market has been a regular weekly event there for more than 10 years.

A WOK AWAY: Yunnan ham is delicious when stir-fried with vegetables.

The second Chinese community that contributes to the market is made up of Chinese Muslims who live in Chiang Mai city, most near Charoen Prathet 1 Road, where the city's most important mosque is located, and where they have been residing for more than 100 years. These Chinese Muslims were originally know in Thai as Jeen Haw.

There were a number of reasons for this, one being that they were merchants who carried their wares in caravans that used donkeys and ma haw (mules) that were strong enough to carry heavy loads across rough, mountainous terrain. Another was that these Chinese could not speak Thai, but were often heard saying a word that sounded like ''haw haw''. They referred to themselves as ''Yunnan Yoe'', or ''Han Jue Yen'', both of which mean Chinese from Yunnan province.

One interesting feature of the Chinese Muslims in the Charoen Prathet 1 community is that although they have Chinese physical features and build their homes in a Chinese style, they wear Muslim dress. Another is the existence of restaurants that serve delectable food, including khao soi haw, a noodle dish that is a long-time favourite in Chiang Mai and that came into existence in the city's Chinese Muslim community before the standard Chiang Mai khao soi became popular.

Among the produce sold in the community's market is a vegetable called hosu. It has a long, smooth, flowering stalk and hairlike roots. The Chinese fry the stalks in oil and cook the roots into a bland soup with pork bones. Another plant, the herb known as soam tang kui, belongs to the same family as ginseng. Its roots are simmered with pork bones, but in small amounts, because ginseng has a powerful heating effect on the body. It is good as a strengthening dish during the cool season.

Makhuea kluea, more generally known in Thai as fak mao, is a vine that produces fruit with a dense, hard pulp that can be cooked into a kaeng som or stir-fried with oyster sauce. Also in the market are various members of the bean family, which begin to appear during the rainy season.

One of them is the broad bean, delicious when fried with oyster sauce. It appears at the end of the year and sells very well. Peas are available, too. They are eaten after being boiled in salted water or fried in oil.

One very interesting kind of food eaten by Chinese Muslims and featured at the market is nuea tak lom, a kind of salted dried beef cut into long pieces that are not as dry in texture as the dried salted beef sold in the Central region.

Yunnan ham is a kind of salted and dried ham from the southern Chinese province that has become very famous. Visitors to the city of Dali in Yunnan will see it being sold in the food shops at the airport. Almost any fried vegetable tastes better with some Yunnan ham added. The type sold at the market in Chiang Mai is made by the local Chinese in their villages.

Among the produce offered at the market are avocados, persimmons and Chinese plums, all selling at prices far below those charged at Bangkok markets.

Prepared foods sold by Chinese Muslim vendors include samosas and a combination of fresh corn kernels mixed with beans and sugar, then wrapped in corn husks and steamed _ delicious!

This is just a very small sampling of the fascinating offerings at the Chinese market on Charoen Prathet 1 Road in Chiang Mai city. Even a short visit will reveal a new aspect of Chinese culture quite different from that seen in Bangkok's Chinese communities. And there is no need to travel to a remote location to experience it. The market is right in the middle of town.

TAKING IT ALL IN: With ‘hosu’, both the stalk and the roots are eaten.

About the author

Writer: Suthon Sukphisit
Position: Writer